“Rally Under the Latvian Flag!”
This was the headline of the exhortation published on July 19, 1915, by Latvian members of the Imperial Russian Duma, Jānis Goldmanis and Jānis Zālītis, announcing that the Imperial Russian Army was allowing the formation of national battalions – in this case, the Latvian Riflemen Battalions, known in Latvian as “Strēlnieki”.
They were still subject to the Imperial Russian Army, but were led by Latvian officers and populated by Latvian soldiers. Permission was given for these battalions to be formed because Latvians knew Latvian territory – where the war was raging – and because the Latvians were virulently anti-German, after 700 years of being ruled by German barons, princes and other estate owners. They were expected to fight for the Russian Empire, which they did, though many were hoping for eventual autonomy within the Empire. Some, of course, were hoping for eventual independence, which did come to fruition later on.
The Latvian Riflemen were instrumental in most of the battles along the Daugava river in Latvia from 1915 to 1917, particularly in the Christmas Battles, where they lost more than a third of their numbers. However, because their efforts and gains were not followed through with an attack by the wider Russian troops, resentment against the Russian generals and state began to grow, which meant that after the October Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover, many of the Latvian Riflemen regiments pledged their allegiance to the Bolshevik army.
The Latvian Riflemen were instrumental in early Soviet rule in Latvia in 1918 and 1919, but as support for the Latvian independence movement grew and popularity of Bolshevik ideas in Latvia waned, many left the Bolshevik army for the new Latvian army units. Those who remained with the Bolsheviks were deployed to other fronts of the Russian Civil War.
What does all of this mean for genealogy? Most young Latvian men would have been called into the army during this period, and if they joined the army after this proclamation, chances were good that they would be in the Latvian Riflemen. The survival of military records from this time period can be hit and miss, but if you know where your ancestor was living at the time that he would have been called into military service, then it might be possible to find them in those regional military records.
I don’t have any proof that any direct ancestors who served in the Latvian Riflemen, though there is a good chance that my great-grandfather Arvīds Francis’ brother Bruno did. He enlisted in the army in September of 1915, and was probably killed in action not that long afterwards. Arvīds did go on to serve in the Latvian War of Independence, but I do not yet have evidence that he served before that. My great-grandfather Brencis Līcītis would have been too old, and his family was living in Inner Russia during the war. Augusts Lūkins, the third of my great-grandfathers, also did not serve in the military, since he was a student at the University of Tartu at the time. That just leaves my fourth great-grandfather, Pēteris Eduards Celmiņš. It is possible that he could have been in the military during this time, but I do not yet have evidence of it. If he was, he had already joined civilian life by 1919 when he was working for the post and telegraph office.
Do you have any ancestors that served with the Latvian Riflemen? Share their stories here!